HARARE – Sally Hayfron, President Robert Mugabe’s wife then, died on January 27, 1992.
She was buried on February 1, 1992 at the National Heroes Acre — which has turned into a Zanu PF burial shrine — just outside Harare.
In between those two dates, and I cannot recall which one now, her body was flown in a flock of military helicopters to the Mugabe family homestead at Kutama in Zvimba for her vigil.
The aircraft circled then landed in a whirlwind of dust and veld grass on a level patch of the pasture land near the cattle dip.
We saw all this because the Mugabe homestead was in the shadow of Kutama Mission where I went to school.
The body of Mugabe’s wife spent a night in the big rondavel at the family homestead and then lay in state for a full day to allow gawkers to file past and bid their farewells.
Our headmaster, one Chinamasa, led an entourage of his boys to the funeral wake but not before admonishing us very sternly before we left to be on our best behaviour and do the school proud.
Even at a funeral, he could not be too sure about his hormonal and restive charges.
So we joined the thousands of mostly party fanatics and Roman Catholics bussed in from far and wide to bid farewell to Sally at the family homestead.
I was familiar, as most of the boys at the mission school were, with the Mugabe village homestead because it was on the tail-end of our marathon route and boy, did we run marathons at Kutama.
We would run past the homestead and slow down to wave at the old lady rooting around in her yard like a mother hen and who looked so uncannily like her son.
I always wondered what she might do if I ran into her yard and helped myself to some of her turgid yellow mangoes which appeared to have no eater.
In the good old days, before the soldiers moved in and became permanently stationed at the homestead, the Mugabe home was very ordinary and modest.
It consisted then of a corrugated rectangular house with a veranda and a number of huts around it. The yard was dotted with groves of verdant mango trees.
Then slowly it began to transform into a palatial residence to rival any in the northern suburbs of Harare.
The road leading to it was properly surfaced in dense tarmacadam to ease the presidential ride and a large hospital was built nearby and named after the president’s favourite teacher at Kutama.
When we arrived for the funeral, there were crowds already gathered and the homestead was filling up even more with every passing minute.
That is the day when it became clear that one of our classmates had not been telling us lies after all; he really was related to the president.
For there right in front of us, togged up in mourning blacks and sitting at some sort of “high table” in the verandah was the big chap himself, smirking and giving us that look that says, “Check me now.”
We waited outside the homestead for the arrival of Mugabe and his officials. Suddenly sirens.
A convoy of speeding cars. Dust rising. Soldiers and police. Doors opening and slamming quickly. Smart salutes all round. Then he appeared, a small and natty figure, flanked by fussy and unsmiling men.
There in the entourage were also the late vice presidents Joshua Nkomo and Simon Muzenda, grinning and constantly stroking his scraggy salt and pepper goatee.
It was my first time to see the late Joshua Nkomo.
He was even larger and rounder in the flesh and looked like Gulliver amongst Lilliputians next to the president and his party.
He held in his hand a short black stick, which he occasionally twirled.
I had heard many stories about the famous walking stick, which was said to possess magic powers.
Now was my chance to see the man and the stick up close.
I inched forward through the press and came within inches of the man. The stick looked rather ordinary.
After they had passed, we followed them to the homestead.
A Roman Catholic choir was in full voice already, singing the dirge; “Panguva yekutambudzika Mwari inhare. Mwari inhare. Mwari inhare panguva yekutambudzika (During times of trouble, God is the saviour)”.
The refrain of the song rang out around the homestead in cadences of alto and bass, accompanied by the rat-a-tat rat-a-tat rattata tattata ta of the Catholic drum, over and over until the song coiled itself deep in the brain so that I can still hear it now as though it was yesterday.
After everyone had settled down and the priest had finished the liturgies, the MC invited us to the body-viewing.
We entered the rondavel where the body was. It was a very large hut with two doors.
We walked slowly in single file, passing armed soldiers in green uniform and yellow berets who were stationed at the door.
Mugabe was sunk into a sofa in one part of the room, curled into a ball of sorrow and flanked by his vice presidents.
He shook hands limply as we filed past and nodded his head when we said to him;
“Nematambudziko baba (We also mourn your loss, father),” our heads at an appropriate tilt, just as the headmaster had coached us to do.
Sally’s female relatives, including her mother and twin sister Esther Sophia Booham, sat in sullen silence on rugs in one part of the room, near the casket.
They wore kente and trailing white doeks, which made them look like ladies at prayer.
To one extreme end of the round room, and garlanded with a forest of flowers, was the maple casket which rested on a gold bier.
The casket was titled at a 45-degree angle to face the door and fully opened so that the whole body was in view.
The face was powdered and the body itself was dressed in a white wedding dress and silk plimsolls. She looked small, almost dollish.
We stared in wonder, hands clasped at the front, and exited through the other door.
Afterwards, we sat outside on anything at hand, benches, stools, bricks and drums and listened to the eulogies.
A few relatives spoke, including Sally’s twin sister. Her voice was distinctive and sounded sophisticated.
Then the late Muzenda came up and made everyone titter with a folksy tale about “bhoki” the brave dog who defends the family home and that Sally was a good “bhoki”.
After him came the late Nkomo, who gave a beautiful speech about unity and ubuntu and that a lady of grace had died.
He gripped his short magic stick with both hands across his ample girth as he spoke, spitting out each word with passion.
Mugabe’s young brother Donato was called up to speak next and to give a report of his trip to Ghana to break the news of Sally’s passing to her people and to bring them to the funeral.
Donato was an inelegant man with uncombed hair and a beer gut and a familiar figure to us because he came to Mass at the mission school once in a while.
He was a greyer and mottled shade of dark than his brother.
He shuffled to the podium, slapped his palm on the head of the microphone and whispered into it; “One, two, one two.”
Satisfied it was working, he cleared his throat and began to speak.
It soon became very apparent as he meandered and rambled on why this man, Mugabe’s own brother, had never been placed anywhere near any hint of power or responsibility. He was a waffler.
When he stood down, an old man asked his neighbour, his brow furrowed;
“What was he trying to say?”
His neighbour buried his head in his frothy mug and pretended not to hear.
Mugabe stood up last.
He spoke at length, moving seamlessly between good Shona and very good English and back again.
He thanked government for help with the funeral.
That made us scratch our heads because we had always assumed he was the government.
He thanked his brother and government ministers and relatives and the in-laws and everyone else who had come to mourn with him.
He told us that Sally Sarah Hayfron was the love of his life.
He talked about where and how they had met and the children who had been snatched away from them.
He explained why his wife was wearing a wedding dress in her coffin and that this was a Ghanaian custom.
He ended with an invitation to everyone to eat and drink and said he would be taking his wife to Harare early the next morning.
After he sat down, we queued for the food and drink.
I got my plate and looked for a place to sit and tuck in but someone had already taken it.
So I went round to the back of the rondavel to look for a seat.
There were more crowds there and a queue was quickly forming at a bowser written Chibuku across it in cursive.
Amongst those casually waiting their turn in the queue were two of my classmates.
They had taken off their school ties and folded them inside their blazers to blend in better with the other imbibers.
On a log nearby were two or so other students who sat together with the villagers, chatting animatedly and passing around a large metal cup brimming with the frothy contents from the bowser.
It was a memorable funeral.
*Nyawanza is a solicitor at Genesis Law Associates and writes here in his personal capacity.